Tuesday, November 11, 2014

The 50 Year Argument

Editor Robert B. Silvers in the offices of The New York Review of Books


For more than fifty years now, The New York Review of Books has had its finger on the zeitgeist of American letters publishing every two weeks to a circulation of 135,000 subscribers.  On the occasion of its fiftieth year, Martin Scorsese and David Tedeschi have put together a riveting documentary entitled, The 50 Year Argument (HBO, 2014) about the life of this enterprise and the editors, writers, and artists who contribute to its pages.  Robert B. Silvers, the journal’s long-serving editor, describes how he edits his writers as well as his method for deciding what are the most important and interesting books of the season.  At one point in the film, Silvers reads from the review’s first and only editorial:  The New York Review of Books does not pretend to cover all the books of the season or even all the important ones.  Neither time nor space, however, have been spent on books which are trivial in their intentions or venal in their effects, except occasionally to reduce a temporarily inflated reputation or to call attention to a fraud.”  This editorial, in its entirety, is quite a mission statement.

The review started during the New York publishing strike of 1963 when founders Silvers and Barbara Epstein, encouraged by their friends, decided it was the perfect time to publish a new book review.  As Silvers recounts in the film, the publishers were frantic for publicity for their upcoming books, and since newspapers were on strike, no advertisements could run to alert the reading public.  The ad buys alone could cover the start-up costs.  Elizabeth Hardwick, a friend of Silvers and someone he had worked with as an editor at Harper’s Magazine, had recently written about the decline of literary criticism in the newspapers of America, specifically The New York Times Book Review.  Here was an opportunity to really say something about contemporary culture, literature and the life of the mind.  Silvers says in the film that as long as they could pay the publisher, they could publish whatever they wanted.  They were not attempting to be part of that zeitgeist, but that is exactly what happened.

For a book lover, the scenery in the film is delicious, especially the offices where the editorial staff works.  Books line the walls in shelves that go floor to ceiling.  Then, there must be thousands of volumes stacked in every conceivable direction.  The editors and staff do not work in enclosed offices, but at desks surrounded by towers of books and papers.  We see Silvers marking up manuscripts, making calls to publishers and reviewers, and dictating emails and correspondence.  The brief flashes of him marking up the margins of a manuscript made me want to freeze frame and read his words.  He is a man in his element, a man who has been lucky enough to find his passion and his vocation and have them be conjoined in symbiotic bliss.  I wanted to walk into the screen and live in that office and never leave.

Beyond the scenery, and most important, are the people, dead and still living, who have populated the pages of the NYRB.  Craziest among them is Norman Mailer, taking on Susan Sontag, the feminist movement, Gore Vidal, and a swinging light bulb in no particular order of importance.  His wild hair, his extreme views, his casual toss off that he stabbed his wife and that Vidal was trying to paint him with the same brush as Charles Manson for his misogyny, all get ample screen time.  Mailer seems to want to out-Hemingway Hemingway, with his bold bravado and somewhat terrifying personality.  He is a literary pugilist crouched and ready, and when he and Vidal throw down in a clip from the Dick Cavett Show, it is fun to watch.  I do wonder how literary history will judge Mailer’s work.  Nevertheless, the feuds among the writers of the NYRB are legendary, as the film proves in several parts.

Centering on the celebration of the fiftieth anniversary, Scorsese and Tedeschi make use of the public readings and discussions that took place during 2013 and the eighteen months the film was in production.  Archival footage is also included with many of the writers who have passed featured with their words and opinions.  James Baldwin gives a rather potent denigration of the n-word, saying that it is the white man who invented the term, the white man who should fear the word itself because it is he who created the monster.  He says this with his wide, angry eyes, blowing cigarette smoke out of his nostrils like a dragon.  The history is apparent when Darryl Pinckney, a current NYRB writer, discusses how Baldwin influences his work, and how he once wrote a scathing review of one of the last publications of this most esteemed writer.  Not satisfied with simply publishing the piece in the review’s pages, he approached Baldwin at a party in his honor and asked him if he had read the piece.  Pinckney is astounded himself at his own audacity, and reassures the audience that he managed to take back some of his misperception when he reviewed two posthumous volumes of Baldwin’s collected works on the pages of the NYRB at the behest of Epstein and Silvers.

Joan Didion takes center stage when the discussion shifts to some of the groundbreaking journalism mounted by Silvers and the review.  Specifically, she wrote about the Central Park jogging case, where a band of young black men allegedly rampaged through the park one night and attacked several people, including a white jogger who was beaten and raped nearly to death.  The men’s confessions were coerced and they suffered intimidation and public condemnation before they were exonerated with DNA evidence decades later.  Didion, for her part, smelled a rat in the proceedings, and reported as much in the pages of the review.  One suspect was fourteen years old, his name splashed across the newspapers at the time, although he was never charged.  In the film, Didion is presented in all her eccentric glory, still sharp and intense after years of excellent witnessing, reporting, writing and surviving through several personal tragedies, a true national treasure in American letters.

What is interesting about these writers’ interviews is how many of them talk about the magic of Silvers’ editorial hand.  There is no animosity, none of the “the editor screwed me” charges that writers often make.  In fact, many of them talk of how Silvers shepherded them through the writing process, sending them information and supporting materials, convincing them that they were capable of great art, great writing.  Zoe Heller calls the NYRB an educational force in her life, a light that enhances her intelligence often about subjects in which she thought she had little interest.  Pinckney discusses how he was basically unemployable as someone who preferred books and immersion in words, so his first job was as babysitter for founding editor Barbara Epstein’s children, until the day she pulled him aside and gave him a bound volume of the journal’s first year.  That lit the fire and made him embrace his life as a writer.  Epstein’s presence is felt throughout the film, her essence captured in photographs and memorabilia from the long history of the journal.  She died in 2006.  From its inception, the NYRB has had only two editors:  Epstein and Silvers, and now that she has passed, Silvers continues as the lone guardian of the institution.

The 50 Year Argument is a film that must be celebrated.  The New York Review of Books is a journal that must be revered.  Both are cultural treasures, and the excellent writing and insights gleaned from the pages of the review bi-monthly must be savored and preserved.  America has always been a country of hard work, of people pulling themselves up by the bootstraps (what are those anyway?), although I’m not always sure if this is true now.  We have never been known as an intellectual force.  May be during the time of Emerson and Thoreau, but certainly not consistently down through the ages.  The New York Review of Books flies in the face of that charge.  There is a mind-life in America, and it can be found on the NYRB pages.  There is magic happening there, and for a window into that world, one must see this film.

Monday, October 20, 2014

Days of Fire



During the outbreaks of Bubonic Plague, better known as the Black Death, many devout Christians believed that the prophecy inherent in the book of Revelation was about to be realized.  The disease came after drought and famine, and as the bodies began to pile up, people desperately tried to find a rhyme or reason as to why some were infected and some avoided getting sick.  Ships arrived in port with every sailor sick and dying, and in at least a few cases, the vessels ran aground because everyone on board was already dead.  At night, people reported strange fires and mists that seemed to carry pestilence and immediate death.  All day in the sweltering heat of summer, the pope kept huge fires burning in the papal apartments at Avignon, believing that aromatic wood would ward off infection.  Those days of fire did nothing to keep Death at bay.

The plague took three forms:  a lymph infection causing buboes, apple-sized swellings that became purple or black in the armpits and groin; a blood infection resulting in deep purple bruising and skin discolorations all over the body; and a pneumonic form causing the coughing up of blood and respiratory failure.  All three forms were fatal, usually, and the last was most puzzling to people at the time.  They had yet to understand airborne contagion.  There were stories of people going to bed well and dying before they woke up the next morning.  Others died within twenty-four hours of first symptoms.  Whole households would perish, but others would be untouched, or have only a few family members die.  Monasteries were obliterated, and priests disappeared.  Doctors also fell victim, leaving a dearth of medical aid for those who remained.  Husbands abandoned sick wives and children.  Children left their parents, or were forced to fend for themselves when the parents died.  The very structure of family and communal life was destroyed as the plague swept the cities, towns and villages.

But all of those people were wrong about Revelation prophecy.  The Black Death did not visit their homes because of something written in an apocalyptic book of symbolism and metaphors dated to the first century of the common era.  In their panic, they looked for signs and indications to understand what was happening.  In the same way, the recent Ebola outbreak around the world must be understood and kept in perspective.

Over the weekend, President Obama appointed an “Ebola Czar” to oversee the United States’ continuing response to the health crisis.  Many are criticizing his choice of Ron Klain, a former member of Joe Biden’s staff who is not a doctor or health care expert.  In recent news reports, the president has been portrayed as impatient and angry with government agencies’ responses to the terrifying illness.  When interviewed on CNN or any other news outlet, officials from the Centers for Disease Control say that there is little chance of an outbreak among civilians, and that some infection in doctors and nurses who treat the sick is to be expected.  On the other end of the reactionary spectrum, people like Rick Perry demand that borders be closed and travel restricted.  I’m waiting for someone to step up to a microphone and tell us this is God’s work, a punishment foisted upon us for our own deviant lifestyle.

A colleague of mine greets every mention of Ebola with, “So this is the end, right?  This is the end of the world?”  The world could end in many ways, and for sure will end when the sun collapses on itself sometime in the future.  However, Ebola, although a threat to human existence, is not the end of the world or of us.  It will cause deaths because it is a dangerous disease, but the stupid statements that it is a genetically engineered sickness designed to limit population growth, that’s just conspiracy hogwash.  In history, there have been many extinct species, and each died off because of certain factors in the environment, in hunting practices, and in just basic bad luck.  Until we find a vaccination or a reliable cure, Ebola will kill people, especially those poor folks who live in dire circumstances and cannot afford first world medical treatment.  Even with that treatment, some may die.  But life is like that; it is dangerous.  Ebola is just one more thing that can kill us.

When did we come to believe that we are invincible?  That is not natural.  No threats, no terrifying diseases, or vicious, wild animals, or bad guys, that’s not realistic in the life equation.  We have always been chased and threatened and forced to fight or run away.  People are born, they live, they die.  That is what is.  Ebola, and every other dangerous thing in the world, should make us think about what is important:  the people we love, the art we create, our commonalities, the beauty and symmetry of our differences.

Last night, I was in a restaurant having dinner when an African-American family arrived at the next table.  They were dressed in their Sunday best—a son in his 30s, a wife, a teenager, and an elderly man who had to be helped to his seat, and his wife who was confined to a wheelchair and could not speak.  As the son tucked the napkin into his father’s collar, the old man said:  “This is so great!  We didn’t know what we were going to eat at home before you all called to take us out.”  His voice had the gravelly richness of Louis Armstrong, and was full of pleasure and gratitude.  His words stabbed at me.  The joy of good food and family obviously meant something to him, namely a richer life.  I leaned over to my wife and told her the old man’s voice reminded me of Armstrong singing the song, “What a Wonderful World.”  Watching the family enjoy their time together on a Sunday evening before starting the crush of a new week, I felt strangely exhilarated and renewed.  I felt hope that even with the pain and suffering in this life, there would always be the simple joys and pleasures of family dinners, time with friends, and a moment of relaxation ahead of a hectic work week.

Ebola reminds us how to live.  It takes from us, it threatens us, it instills fear.  In the poetry of Psalms, we know that we are forever walking through the valley of the shadow of death, but we should not fear because we are not alone.  Ebola just might bring us a gift.  As with all things in life that remind us of the fragility of existence, we must see the world and recognize its terrors, but we must not be afraid to live.

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

The Notebook Problem



For the last few days, my attention has been caught up in the “notebook problem.”  Yes, Ebola has now been found in America; ISIS continues its reign of terror; the drought in the western United States has become dire for farmers and anyone with a lawn; and racial unrest in Ferguson boils over every night as darkness falls.  Yet, here I am worried about notebooks.  I guess it is about how I obsess over those other things that makes me concerned about my notebooks because it is in my notebooks that I mull over the state of the world, the way we live now, the future and the past and of course, the present.

As the world turns, I compulsively write.  I note.  I get down the words and phrases I hear.  I record the drama and the comedy.  I cannot stop my hands on the keyboard or from moving across a page.  Last month, I wrote more than 17,000 words and 27 single-spaced pages in a file on my computer called “Chronicle,” but is, in fact, my journal.  None of that material saw publication, and I would not want it to, but every word was necessary to my sanity.  So 17,000 words on top of essays, reports, emails, memos, teaching materials, and class notes that did see the light of publication in some form.  I write this by way of proving that keeping a notebook is essential to my life, the way I make sense of an increasingly nonsensical world.

So what is the problem?  The computer file and 17,000 words are not enough.

First, I am in love with the feeling of a medium-nib fountain pen moving across a fresh page.  I love the cursive spin of the words, something I first learned in second grade.  I love a school composition notebook, with its black and white speckled cover in all its infinite varieties of college-ruled, wide-ruled, assorted colors in that traditional speckled pattern, or even a few I picked up in Santa Barbara from Chaucer’s Books that are called “Decomposition Books” because they are made entirely of recycled material.  I love my reporter’s notebooks, suitable for notes and lists and quick jots.  I love legal pads for class notes, and especially love the ones made out of recycled paper that soak of the dark blue or black ink spilling from the aforementioned fountain pen.  I love typing, my fingers flying across the keyboard stacking up words on words on words.

Writing instruments—yes, I love the laptop computer, so portable, so convenient.  And let’s break down the fountain pen fetish:  I have three cheap Schaeffer’s that tend to leak when left in my leather satchel, so they camp out on my desk in a cup.  They are utilitarian and get the job done, but are not my first choice.  I have three Waterman’s that work best on the recycled paper.  I have a rich-looking Cartier, black and silver and ready for speed, but with a very small ink tube that limits its mileage.

I am left-handed, which means that most writing instruments, desks, and other minutiae of the writing life are not designed for me, but I make do.  I tend to grip my pens too firmly, and therefore, I suffer from painful writer’s cramp after only a page or two.  If I persist for an hour, my hand will loosen up and I’m fine, but when I first start out, it is slow, painful going.  This is why I’ve gravitated to the keyboard for all my writing recently.  I take notes in the reporter’s notebook, a kind of shorthand that I can later expand into full, typewritten notes.  But I miss the swirl of the pen across the page, crafting sentence after sentence, slow and steady and considered.

How I write is as important as what I write.  I need the perfect combination of tactile and fluid writing on the first draft as I do the combination of editing and revision in later drafts.  Many studies have been done that associate the engagement with pen and paper as a way of internalizing a topic or subject.  The brain engages with the pen in hand in a way it doesn’t in any other form.  To physically take up the pen is like firing the pistons in the engine that is the brain.  Therefore, we mourn the loss of cursive instruction.  Those who should know better say no one writes with a pen anymore.  Kids exit the womb looking for a keyboard, or at the very least, voice activated software that allows them to start navigating the wired world immediately after the umbilical cord is cut.  Sever one cord and go cordless?  Life could use some retrogression, some slowing down.

Yet, the question must be asked:  is my writing different when I write a draft out by hand first?  For me, the pain in my hand often limits the expansive-ness of my draft, so I usually wind up adding more when I type it up.  But I’m okay with that.  There are also some things that simply must be written by hand while others need the speedy typist.  Therefore, here is the plan:

For my response to the world, the chronicling of real life as it is lived, not my life, but world life, I will type directly into my “Chronicle” file.  Reportage, no “I” allowed.  I will be the third person objective reporter.  This material, however, will not be for publication, although it may be reworked into something at a later date.  This is transcription of what’s going on out there.

In my composition books, I will write down my personal reflections.  In this notebook, it is all about me, and most certainly will never see the light of publication.  These are the notebooks I’ll ask my wife to destroy without reading when I am gone.  On these pages, I can be whiny, narcissistic, self-absorbed, vain, puerile, immature.  I can rant and rave and bemoan my poor station in life.  Boo-hoo.  But, I will also try to examine my own spirituality, my faith, my hopes and dreams.  This will be my notebooks of secrets.

My beloved reporter’s notebooks will be used for lists and quick notes, like interesting words or phrases, people I want to research, concepts I wish to explore, daily compilations of things to do.  This will be the notebook that will often be stuck into a back pocket for an emergency pen and paper.  I have them already in my car, my satchel, my desk drawer, my work space.  The ubiquitous quick thought receptacle, always at the ready.

The legal pad is for work—class notes, full drafts, research material, fully excavated and fileted ideas, splayed out on the page like an unlucky frog in high school biology class.  I will also go back later and type up these notes after revisions, reorganizations, re-prioritizings, until they are ready and willing to be written up as essays.

Of course, will I have time for so much writing?  Will it become “too many notebooks, so little time?”  Will some of these pristine pages die of loneliness?  Will they feel neglected?  My answer is this:  I want to write well enough to justify the killing of the trees.  In the end, wherever and whatever I write, that is the only thing that matters.

Thursday, September 4, 2014

How About Never--Is Never Good For You?



It is probably not fair that I read and loved Roz Chast’s cartoon memoir of her last years with her parents before I read Bob Mankoff’s similar reflections on his life in How About Never—Is Never Good For You?: My Life in Cartoons (Henry Holt and Co., 2014).  Both are great cartoonists; Bob Mankoff is the cartoon editor at The New Yorker while Chast is one of many in the humorous illustration business at the magazine.  Both books consist of drawings and prose, making them unique in the way they tell a life story.  However, that is also where the two diverge dramatically.  Chast’s memoir was both sad and funny in equal measure and focused on a specific time in her life.  Mankoff goes for a mix of autobiography and an analysis of cartoon humor and specifically, humor at The New Yorker.  In this way, his book is less funny, although there are some classic cartoons reprinted here, many from other cartoonists that Mankoff has edited over the years as well as from Mankoff himself.  It is a primer for those who want to be cartoonists (a dying breed, according to Mankoff) or those who have always been intrigued by The New Yorker wit and humor.  In the latter group I count myself.  I’ve even used the cartoons in my classroom to have students analyze what makes them funny.  It is a subtle and nuanced form, as is the case with most great art.  In the end, I valued Chast’s work for its poignant honesty about how we grow old while appreciating Mankoff’s work for its insight into the life of The New Yorker.  It is interesting timing that both books have been released recently, and a sign that cartoons can be literature and function as hybrid nonfiction storytelling.

Because of his desire to not only illuminate his own life, but the cartooning process, Mankoff’s book has a didactical component.  He takes the reader through the process of selecting panels for the week’s issue, something done in conjunction with longtime editor David Remnick, who, according to Mankoff, is no slouch when it comes to humor and cartoon analysis.  Mankoff gives us a history of cartooning as well as a deconstruction of cartoons that have appeared in the magazine.  He explains how he started The Cartoon Bank, which has taken what he calls “leftovers” and licensed them out to other magazines, ad campaigns and miscellaneous venues resulting in a lucrative second opportunity to earn income for Mankoff and his cartoonists.  He also explains in detail how he culls the 500 cartoons he looks at each week to the 50 he takes to the editorial meeting on Wednesday afternoons.  It really is an interesting process, and the book feels like it gives more attention to cartooning and humor than to the life story of the editor.

One of the more intriguing processes he focuses on is the development of captions.  The few words that accompany each panel are often studies in humor-poetry, almost haiku-like in their brevity, but every word has weight and heft in generating laughs.  He cites examples of cartoons that did not make the cut and what was wrong with each of them, as well as captions that did not work.  Of course, worth the price of the book alone, he tells us how to win The New Yorker weekly cartoon caption contest found on the last page of each issue.  His insights will not necessarily result in a slam dunk win, but he makes clear what he is looking for when his assistant wades through the submissions.  Even noted film critic Roger Ebert tried the contest, 107 times before he finally won, so competition is fierce.

All in all, I enjoyed the book, especially since I have no talent in drawing.  I love The New Yorker and thoroughly enjoy the pithy cartoons, but drawing them is a mystery to me, or at least it was until I read this book.  It did not make me draw any better, but it did explain the creative process of a cartoonist.  If anything, Mankoff may try too hard to be funny, but he mounts what really is an academic study of humor and cartooning, so a little dose of fun goes a long way to keep things interesting.  How About Never—Is Never Good For You? is both entertaining and funny as well as being a graduate study in a disappearing art form:  the magazine cartoon.  Bob Mankoff is a good teacher, combining just the right touch of memoir, art, humor and education to open a window on the way things work in the life of a cartoonist at The New Yorker.